Yale Student Creates Unblockable Replacement For Useful Course Catalog Site Yale Blocked; Yale Reconsiders Initial Block

from the boom-goes-the-dynamite dept

I'll never understand what makes some people and organizations freak out when users of their systems make better versions. A decade ago we wrote about two examples of this: when a genealogist made a much better version of the interface to search through Ellis Island's data, and when someone built a better version of Odeon Cinema's website to work with non-IE browsers. In both cases, the official websites freaked out that someone might make a better version without permission.

The same kind of thing played out last week, with a story you might have heard of, concerning Yale blocking access to a site built by a pair of students (two years ago), creating a better course catalog. Unlike Yale's official course catalog, this one made it easy to see class evaluations and teacher ratings. Yale came up with a variety of excuses for this block, first saying that the site's name, YBB+ (for Yale Blue Book Plus) violated the university's trademark on Yale Bluebook. After the students changed the name to CourseTable, the university blocked it again, claiming it was "malicious."
When people pointed out how ridiculous that was, Yale told the two students that the real problem was that they had made it too easy to see that course evaluation data, which Yale did not approve for use of in that manner. Of course, data is data. And I don't see how Yale has any legitimate claim to block how anyone uses that data. You can't copyright the data. The best Yale could come up with was the silly claim that this was "violating the appropriate use policy" and "breaching the trust the faculty had put in the college to act as stewards of their teaching evaluations." That still doesn't make much sense, other than that the University wanted to try to hide data it had released itself.

Then, after all of that, Yale also claimed that CourseTable violated the copyright in the course descriptions. I would think that the developers would have an incredibly strong fair use claim here (use in education, not interfering with the market "value" of the original, etc.).

Either way, another Yale student, Sean Haufler, saw how ridiculous all of this was, and decided, what the heck, he could write a system that clearly gets around all of Yale's supposed complaints: he created a Chrome Extension, so that the same information from CourseTable/YBB+ shows up whenever anyone using it surfs through Yale's official site. He notes that this seems to get around all of Yale's claimed issues:

I built a Chrome Extension called Banned Bluebook. It modifies the Chrome browser to add CourseTable’s functionality to Yale’s official course selection website, showing the course’s average rating and workload next to each search result. It also allows students to sort these courses by rating and workload. This is the original site, and this is the site with Banned Bluebook enabled (this demo uses randomly generated rating values).

Banned Bluebook never stores data on any servers. It never talks to any non-Yale servers. Moreover, since my software is smarter at caching data locally than the official Yale course website, I expect that students using this extension will consume less bandwidth over time than students without it. Don’t believe me? You can read the source code. No data ever leaves Yale’s control. Trademarks, copyright infringement, and data security are non-issues. It’s 100% kosher.

As Haufler points out, he's hoping to demonstrate to Yale's administration that not only was this whole censorship effort stupid and futile, but that if it's granting students access to data, it shouldn't then try to block how they use that data. It seems especially troubling that an institution of higher learning would do this kind of thing.

Just as I was finishing up this post, I learned that Yale dean Mary Miller has admitted to perhaps reacting too hastily, and recognizing that technology has changed quite a bit. While she still seems to claim that using the data violates an acceptable use policy, she seems at least willing to consider this:
Although the University acted in keeping with its policies and principles, I see now that it erred in trying to compel students to have as a reference the superior set of data that the complete course evaluations provide. That effort served only to raise concerns about the proper use of network controls. In the end, students can and will decide for themselves how much effort to invest in selecting their courses.

Technology has moved faster than the faculty could foresee when it voted to make teaching evaluations available to students over a decade ago, and questions of who owns data are evolving before our very eyes. Just this weekend, we learned of a tool that replicates YBB+'s efforts without violating Yale’s appropriate use policy, and that leapfrogs over the hardest questions before us. What we now see is that we need to review our policies and practices. To that end, the Teaching, Learning, and Advising Committee, which originally brought teaching evaluations online, will take up the question of how to respond to these developments, and the appropriate members of the IT staff, along with the University Registrar, will review our responses to violations of University policy. We will also state more clearly the requirement/expectation for student software developers to consult with the University before creating applications that depend on Yale data, and we will create an easy means for them to do so.


Reader Comments (rss)

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    Christopher Best (profile), Jan 21st, 2014 @ 6:28pm

    We will also state more clearly the requirement/expectation for student software developers to consult with the University before creating applications that depend on Yale data, and we will create an easy means for them to do so.


    *sigh*

    I just don't have anything polite to say.

     

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    That One Guy (profile), Jan 21st, 2014 @ 8:05pm

    Recognizing their mistake?

    'Although the University acted in keeping with its policies and principles, I see now that it erred in trying to compel students to have as a reference the superior set of data that the complete course evaluations provide.'

    Yeah, they're not admitting to going overboard at all, they're still claiming to have been 'looking out for the students', they probably just got tired of wiping the egg off their faces as each of their excuses was shot down and shown to be groundless and/or ridiculous.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 21st, 2014 @ 8:30pm

    They should have asked for help to rebuild their site two years ago. I'm guessing it was so smart I'm stupid over competitiveness can't admit someone beat me protect my ego at all cost that kicked in.

     

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    Androgynous Cowherd, Jan 21st, 2014 @ 9:40pm

    Leapfrogs

    Just this weekend, we learned of a tool that replicates YBB+'s efforts without violating Yale’s appropriate use policy, and that leapfrogs over the hardest questions before us.


    Well, the students have surpassed their teachers, so at least that much of the educational process is still working as it should be at Yale.

     

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    saulgoode (profile), Jan 21st, 2014 @ 10:11pm

    To that end, the Teaching, Learning, and Advising Committee, which originally brought teaching evaluations online, will take up the question of how to respond to these developments,...
    My guess is their response will be to no longer make the evaluation data available.

     

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      Kev (profile), Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 6:28am

      Re:

      Yup, that vote will be on the very next agenda. I imagine they'll justify it as a "privacy" issue for the faculty and staff and probably make some sort of claim that the reviews are misleading because they don't take into account some super secret data-set that students don't have access to. Based on that, they'll just take the whole thing offline.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 7:56am

      Re:

      That's what I was thinking too @saulgoode

       

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    antymat, Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 2:22am

    Changing the way the data is presented is a violation of the Policy?

    Only in America. Or maybe they should attend their own courses of software design?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 3:30am

    Crap! Now we have to find a way to block our own data again!

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 3:38am

    just another example of someone/something trying to 'be in control' of the uncontrollable. absolutely pathetic, and made worse by the fact of who/what Yale is!

     

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    johnjac (profile), Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 6:34am

    Easy

    "we will create an easy means for them to do so."

    It was easy until you got in the way.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 7:03am

    Colleges are about making money 1st. Education comes 2nd. Just like the medical industry.

     

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    Geno0wl (profile), Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 7:24am

    I'll never understand what makes some people and organizations freak out when users of their systems make better versions.

    loss of control.
    I work for government agency. I see stuff like that. People can't directly gain "control" over others like they can in private industry, so they use other methods to.
    This is just one of many.

     

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    Vic, Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 7:31am

    "Technology has moved faster than the faculty could foresee"

    Right, they will never say it the right way, which is:

    "Technology has moved faster than the faculty did"

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 7:43am

    The guy that made the site that allowed people to see which stores had ipods in the colour and size they wanted is a more noteable example than the ones you listed.

     

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    Brazenly Anonymous, Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 7:57am

    Legitimate concerns missing from article

    I'll never understand what makes some people and organizations freak out when users of their systems make better versions.


    The fear of someone hijacking the trust of users is simple and unfortunately justified. The approach of demanding that the full source code be turned over to the organization and compiled/distributed by the organization seems straightforward enough. However, licensing headaches and, more importantly, continuing support of the code make this approach untenable.

    As such, the best approach is probably to firmly (with legal backing) request that a disclaimer be added to the alternative version of the site stating that it is not the official version (along with a link to the official version). In this way the organization can easily gain summary judgements if someone sues over malware or erroneous data distributed by the alternative version.

    Clearly this was handled poorly by Yale, but simply ignoring the site's existence could, unfortunately, result in legal action against the University. Even worse, given the right judge, that legal action would have a small but significant chance to succeed.

     

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    Me, Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 8:24am

    I am so, so glad I transferred out of Yale to a school that better understands technology, customer service (the students are the customers!) and copyright law.

    If Mary Miller is an example of the "education" one would receive at Yale, one is better off saving that tuition money for a lobotomy. You'd end up better off.

     

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    Student, Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 8:27am

    Technology

    "Technology has moved faster than the faculty could foresee..."
    __________________________________

    Doesn't speak very well of the Yale faculty. If I were on the Yale faculty I'd be pretty upset that Mary Miller was making me look like a fucking moron.

     

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    Chris in Utah (profile), Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 9:22am

    "We will also state more clearly the requirement/expectation for student software developers to consult with the University before creating applications that depend on Yale data, and we will create an easy means for them to do so. "

    Anybody heard of regulatory capture?

     

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    scotts13 (profile), Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 10:28am

    Been there, done that

    Back in the 80's, I worked at a computer retailer which used a rather awful terminal based point-of-sale system. Solely for my own convenience, I wrote a Macintosh-based front end for it. It not only looked much prettier, it let you do quotes, included leasing rates, auto selected and offered to add extended warranties, etc. After a while, other reps were asking for copies and eventually the whole office was using it.

    When corporate found out, they first threatened to fire me (for "hacking") then decided they owned the software (it had been developed on my own time) and standardized on it. They assigned me to maintain the code, in addition to my other duties, at no additional pay.

    I refused (this did not go over well). They got some other schmo to husband it, which did not go over well either.

     

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    Rekrul, Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 6:19pm

    Good for him! It's just too bad that he choose to write it solely for Chrome, so that people have allow Google's malware on their system in order to use it.

     

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    nasch (profile), Jan 22nd, 2014 @ 8:45pm

    To that end, the Teaching, Learning, and Advising Committee, which originally brought teaching evaluations online, will take up the question of how to respond to these developments, and the appropriate members of the IT staff, along with the University Registrar, will review our responses to violations of University policy. We will also state more clearly the requirement/expectation for student software developers to consult with the University before creating applications that depend on Yale data, and we will create an easy means for them to do so.

    Is anyone else reading this as "we're going to figure out how to update our policies so that this new thing will be banned too"? "we will create an easy means for them to do so" does give me some hope that they've seen the light.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 23rd, 2014 @ 11:03am

    www.facebook.com is terrible

     

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